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Armchair Architect 2016: Construction and Kismet

July 26, 2017

Photos by Ryan Farrow

Virtual golf design met the real thing in mid-July at Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin. Brian Silvernail, winner of Golf Digest's 2016 Armchair Architect contest, spent a weekend consulting with golf architect David McLay Kidd on the site of the resort's second 18, Mammoth Dunes, now under construction. Silvernail's winning design, selected last fall by Kidd and resort owner Mike Keiser from among 532 entries, serves as the template for the downhill, drivable par-4 14th hole.

Silvernail, a 47-year-old Melbourne, Fla. graphic designer who moonlights as a computer golf game architect, got a generous taste of the full experience of building an actual golf hole, from flagging the edges of fairway grassing lines to receiving a crash course in operating both a bulldozer, used to shape fairways and greens, and an excavator, used in carving out bunkers.

But his primary function that weekend was to review the proposed hole with Kidd and recommend any changes he deemed necessary to reflect how he intended the hole should play.

Just days before Silvernail's visit, shaper Ernie Polverari had bulldozed a rough-shape of Silvernail's hole from a steep hillside of sand, but in the course of that construction, some alterations to the design had to be made to make it fit into the steep terrain.


Photo by Ryan Farrow


Photo by Ryan Farrow

"It's great to start with something planned on a computer," Kidd explained to Silvernail. "It's not so great if the finished hole looks like it was planned on a computer." He explained that the all-important third dimension of a golf hole can only be handled with adjustments in the field. This is especially true of the 14th hole, which will measure about 310 yards from the tips, drops at least 50 feet from tee to green and has a severe right-to-left cross slope of at least 45 degrees.

Silvernail's contest entry envisioned a driveable par-4 with upper right-hand fairway on which a drive could ride a slope and bound down onto the green, much in the manner of an extreme breaking putt. It also provided for an easily-reachable alternative lower left-hand fairway for cautious golfers who wanted to simply bump it down the hill off the tee, then pitch onto the green.

Kidd explained how that left-hand alternate fairway had to be considerably truncated in order to handle drainage. Rainwater rushing down the steep fairway has to be efficiently captured and drained, but Mammoth Dunes uses no drainage pipe. "The sand here is 300 feet deep," Kidd said. "If we can get water off the fairway and onto exposed sand, it will quickly drain away."

So shaper Luis Varela created an enormous wrap-around bunker on the left to catch and absorb all water rushing down the hillside of grass, a bunker that high handicappers would have to carry from the tee in order to reach the lower left fairway. Not ideal, but unavoidable. To provide a more reasonable bailout option, Kidd had Polverari flatten out the right-hand fairway above the bunker, some 125 yards short of the green. After examining the alterations, Silvernail was okay with them.


Photo by Ryan Farrow

What was preserved from Silvernail's design was the remainder of the upper right-hand fairway, the preferred path from tee to green. Two curving ridges were bulldozed into the cross slope, the first about 240 yards from the back tee, the second about 280. A ball failing to carry the first ridge will kick down to the left and settle onto that lower left-hand fairway, leaving a short but awkward pitch to a semi-blind green, where only the top of the flag will be visible. A ball carrying the first ridge and hitting the second ridge will also kick left, but will follow contours down onto the putting surface. A drive that's too aggressive and clears the second ridge will still bounce to the left, but end up in a grassy hollow behind the green.

To test the theory, Kidd had Silvernail roll a basketball down the various ridges and slopes. They adjusted the axis of the green a bit to accept shots running down the steep hill, and pulled the leading edge of the green up a slope to guarantee that shots coming close will roll onto the surface. After discussing a target bunker high on that second ridge, Silvernail flagged it out and Valera on his excavator carved it out, shaping it so a golf ball could fly into it, but not roll into it.

Kidd also took Silvernail to a spot intended for the men's regular tee (about 270 yards from the green) and had him hit several golf balls with a driver to see if he, a 14-handicapper, could carry the first ridge from that tee but avoid flying into that target bunker on the second ridge. All four tee shots Silvernail hit carried the first ridge and thus had the chance of bounding down onto the green, had the fairway been grass instead of soft sand.


Photo by Ryan Farrow

Both the course architect and the contest winner were delighted with the final contours of the hole, making it potentially drivable for even average golfers. Irrigation is now being installed on the hole and it will soon be grassed. It, and the remainder of the course, should be fully playable by July, 2018. (Six holes of Mammoth Dunes are presently open for preview play, golfers discovering Kidd's philosophy of providing as many fun scoring opportunities as possible via extremely wide fairways and huge greens that are accessible to low, bouncing, running shots.)

For those who believe in kismet, there are aspects of Silvernail's involvement at Mammoth Dunes that seem, if not inevitable, certainly more than coincidental. When the contest was first proposed, a local computer artist, Brian Zager of Wisconsin Rapids, was contracted to develop a global model of the narrow section of land of the 14th, to help contestants visualize the terrain on which to design a hole. The 33-year-old Zager had first gotten interested in computer golf design over 20 years ago, when at age 12 he started playing Accolade's Jack Nicklaus Golf & Course Design: Signature Edition.

Zager was especially impressed by the quality of the computer graphics of several golf courses presented on the game, credited to a Brian Silvernail. (Silvernail had received about a thousand dollars per design he produced for that golf game.) Silvernail became Zager's idol, and they soon started corresponding. Silvernail shared with Zager the mapping programs he used in generating computer course designs. Over the decades, the two continued to correspond and would compete against one another many times in online golf matches.

Last year, after Zager produced the graphics for the Armchair Architect contest, he was disappointed to learn that his involvement disqualified him from entering the contest. So he contacted his long distance friend, Silvernail, and urged him to enter the contest instead. Silvernail, who had never entered a golf design contest before, reluctantly did so. Unbeknown to Zager until the results were announced, Silvernail's entry was picked as the winner.

The two met for the first time during Silvernail's visit to Mammoth Dunes. They not only hit it off, they teamed to soundly defeat Kidd and this writer in an alternate-shot competition on the Coore & Crenshaw-designed Sand Valley course, demonstrating skill at both real golf as well as the virtual variety.

But there's more. Craig Haltom, the Wisconsin engineer who first saw the golf potential in these pine-covered sand dunes and introduced Keiser to the site, had contracted with Zager several years ago to map the entire property to determine if the steep sand hills could accommodate golf. Zager had used the software Silvernail had provided him, and the resulting grid maps Zager produced were instrumental in Halton convincing Keiser to develop Sand Valley. When Haltom finally met Silvernail during his visit, he declared him to be his hero. Without that software, he said, Sand Valley wouldn't have happened.


Photo by Ryan Farrow

Kidd was astonished to overhear that. He, too, had used Zager's contour maps in preparing the routing of Mammoth Dunes, and had no idea that the program used in the mapping had been provided years ago by Silvernail. If not for that mapping, Kidd said, he would have never have figured out a walkable routing for the property. The key to the routing was the 14th hole, which occupies a downhill notch in an otherwise insurmountable ridge of sand dunes.

Such are the stranger-than-fiction twists and turns of Golf Digest's 2016 Armchair Architect contest. If not for Silvernail, Zager would likely not have produced a workable map and Sand Valley might not have happened in the first place. If not for Zager, Silvernail would likely not have entered the Armchair Architect contest. And what are the odds, out of 532 entries, that it would be Brian Silvernail's golf hole that David Kidd and Mike Keiser ended up picking as the winner?